The multi-eventer also broke his own heptathlon world record in winning the first of his three world indoor titles in 2012, the latest of which came in Portland in 2016, where his Canadian wife Brianne Theisen-Eaton also took gold in the pentathlon. And in keeping with the rest of his stellar career, the American all-rounder has also doubled up on the Olympic stage. After scooping a first decathlon gold at London 2012, he successfully defended his title in Rio, becoming only the third athlete to do so, after compatriot Bob Mathias, the 1948 and 1952 champion, and Great Britain’s 1980 and 1984 gold medallist Daley Thompson.
Unbeaten since 2011, yet always reluctant to accept the “World’s Greatest Athlete” tag, the unfailingly modest 28-year-old was an overwhelming favourite to retain his Olympic crown. Taking the lead in the second event, the long jump, with a leap of 7.94m, he held on to it from there on in, though not without a scare or two.
One day, I’m going to have to meet Daley, shake his hand and thank him for giving me something to chase after. Ashton Eaton USA - Ashton Eaton USA
The American needed a third-attempt clearance of 4.90m in the pole vault, the eighth event, to avoid an early elimination that would have seriously jeopardised his defence. In the process he sustained a shoulder injury that hampered his progress in the penultimate event, the javelin, which saw France’s Kevin Mayer move right into gold-medal contention with a throw of 65.04. Rising to an unexpected challenge, Eaton pulled out a third and final throw of 59.77m to ensure he held a narrow 44-point advantage heading into the 1,500m. Needing to stay within around seven seconds of the Frenchman, the defending champion sprinted past him on the final lap to cap a challenging defence in style.
“To win two Olympic golds in a row like Daley Thompson is very special,” said the two-time champion, whose points total of 8,993 equalled the Olympic record set by Sebrle at Athens 2004. “One day, I’m going to have to meet Daley, shake his hand and thank him for giving me something to chase after.”
Summing up what makes Eaton such a competitor, his coach, Harry Marra, who also trains wife Brianne, said: “There’s a lot of good athletes but sometimes when you go in the tank on an event, the rest of the whole meet goes in the tank. They don’t, they just keep fighting back. Repeating a decathlon gold when so many things can go wrong: that’s impressive. It’s historic.”
Having achieved everything there is to achieve in his event, and with his 30th birthday creeping into view, Eaton spent the days after his Rio triumph playing down talk of an Olympic three-peat in Tokyo in four years’ time, tweeting to his fans that he was “unlikely” to make the trip. Yet with two golds in his grasp, the opportunity to add a third and strike out on his own in decathlon history may prove too tempting to resist for this most talented yet grounded of athletes.